The Rider (2017). 105 minutes. Directed by Chloe Zhao. Featuring Brady Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford, and James Calhoon.
In one of the very first scenes of The Rider, South Dakota cowboy Brady Blackburn undresses a head bandage before entering a running shower. Staples hold his skull together, and his fingers clench uncontrollably. Brady has just returned home from the hospital after waking up from a coma with severe head and nerve damage, the result of being bucked off of a bronco in the center of a rodeo ring.
Director Chloe Zhao captures Brady’s heightened awareness of his altered body, a terrifying corporeal dissociation familiar to anyone who has experienced traumatic injury. But for Brady, a rodeo champion whose life and livelihood exists on the backs of horses, the prognosis is as existential as it is physical. Doctors tell him he cannot ride and may never be able to again.
This is a stark and unfathomable fate for Brady, a deeply skilled rider and trainer, who is grieving the loss of his mother, in need of money, and has no work experience nor a high school degree. The film begins post accident, authentically charting Brady’s identity reconciliation and confused sense of purpose after learning he can no longer do what he loves most.
The Rider upholds an almost tangible realism that is born from reality; Brady Blackburn the rider is played by Brady Jandreau, an injured rider living on Pine Ridge Reservation where the film was shot. The film’s director Chloe Zhao, who is Chinese-American, scripted The Rider while working on her first film Songs My Brothers Taught Me, a poetic narrative film about a young girl living on a nearby South Dakota reservation that feels like verité documentary. While shooting Songs, Zhao met the real Brady right after his fall. Feeling connected to Brady and inspired by his plight, Zhao went on to live and work closely with him and his Oglala Lakota community, many of whom are cast in The Rider to play versions of themselves.
Although Zhao insists on the film’s fictions, documentarian sensibilities show in the way she captures the relationships between Brady and his rodeo friends—young men he’s grown up with on the reservation. Whether drinking beer by the campfire or training mules, Zhao’s depicted early manhood takes shape in rough physicality, brotherly compassion, and an honoring of sport, even when injury is commonplace. A scene of Brady wrestling a younger, less experienced rider is memorably dance-like; on top of one another, the boys test each other’s strength while being cautious of vulnerabilities.
The most physically disabled of Brady’s crew is his buddy Lane (Lane Scott), a former rodeo legend who is partially paralyzed and unable to speak. When Brady visits Lane in the hospital, he helps him sit on a horseback simulator, where Lane slowly moves his lower body as if guiding a bronco. Later, while in bed, Lane signs to Brady: “Don’t give up on your dreams.” It’s a nearly silent moment representing the film’s philosophical core. With sincerity and love, paralyzed Lane seems to be advising Brady to get back on the horse—even if it means risking his life. In few words Lane’s axiom asks: what’s the point of living if you’re unable to do what makes you feel most alive?
In this quiet scene and others, Zhao captures the tensions of Brady’s psychological processing: negotiations between breaking down and maintaining a cowboy toughness that typifies masculinity in the American west. Needing money, Brady pawns his saddle for cash and in the next moment takes it back, decidedly unable to let go of his weathered gear and what it represents. In a later scene, Brady sheds tears at the wheel after driving home from a visit with Lane. Confusion, hesitation, confrontation: this is how The Rider redefines the classic western, revealing itself as more contemplative than active and closer to raw emotive truth than performance.
Pine Ridge Reservation, captured beautifully by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, is the kind of wild that spurs such meditation and allows for mental grounding. Beyond the rings and stables, the back trails glow through pastel sunsets and wide open vistas, and Zhao and Richards are patient with the camera, often just letting the landscape radiate and breathe. Though the film is steeped in heartbreak and grief, nature acts as a liberating reprieve for Brady, whose profound way with animals and connection to place become his source of glory. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Brady mounts his horse Gus for the first time since his fall. The shot is deep, the prairie wide, a reddish orange sun beams as the day turns to night. Atop Gus, Brady tactfully shifts from fear to control, and his hesitation turns to a rhythmic canter. It’s a moment that gracefully lands, depicting an earned inner peace, a homecoming.
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